On Healthy Christian Criticism

Bryan Hall of JohnnyBGamer wrote this short little ditty on Christian criticism. As a critic of a kind (maybe not a particularly good one), I’m obliged to throw my hat in the ring on this issue. Although I’ve written quite a long series on this whole thing already (regarding video games in particular), I think I need to focus a bit more on the specific issue of Christians in general criticizing things.

If I am summarizing correctly, then Mr. Hall wants us to look at a few things:

1. Have you ever wondered what healthy Christian criticism looks like in regards to video games? I know that often I have been guilty of intentionally writing a negative review from the outset. I am guilty of making blanket statements just because I have been offended by a gameplay mechanic or content found in a game. Just because I am/was offended, I have illogically reasoned, all Christians must flock to my side and be offended as well. As I have grown and matured in my walk with Christ, I have found that criticism is a much more nuanced creature.

We could use the Bible in that regard. A LOT of story elements and plotlines in the Bible offend most people. I mean, it does contain those “genocide” narratives, does it not? Then again, calling it “offensive’ or giving it a negative label immediately cedes ground to the culture around it. Perhaps God knows better than us, right? What God does is God’s business, and it is not necessarily our job to defend Him (I am sounding like Karl Barth, all of a sudden).

When it comes to criticims, then, we do well to avoid what they call “fundamental attribution error”. This means that we judge someone else’s actions as if they were caused by a personality or character flaw. You know about this because you do it yourself; anytime you’re driving, or perhaps walking, you always meet that guy or gal that puts everyone else in danger. The person in front of your drives through a red light; you just assume he’s an impatient lout and move on with your life. But really, maybe he’s driving to the hospital to see the birth of his child! This happens so frequently that we don’t realize it, from our politicians to our friends and family.

Entertainment media, as an enterprise created out of sinful humanity, also needs the same deft and light touch. We cannot come to immediate conclusions – violence is bad! – without examining the circumstances surrounding the creation of that thing. I’m pretty sure Mr. Hall mentions this next:

2. Just as when we study the Bible, we must also examine the cultural and historical context of what we are reading.

Exactly. Going in blind, so to speak, just opens us up for criticism, like a boxer who refuses to block his head. I have found that investigating, listening, discovering, and learning do a much better job for a critical enterprise than anything else. The less you know, the more prone we are to making rash generalizations; the more we know, the more we know that we don’t know. This humbles us, in a way, by showing how insufficient we are per se. Hence, we need other people to aid in the critical process.

He goes on to quote Kevin Schut from Of Games & God: A Christian Exploration of Video Games, who says something to the effect that “criticism isn’t necessarily positive or negative”. I would like to agree with that, but most criticism I see deals in both positives and negatives; by having a worldview, you cannot escape that in the least. The Holy Spirit exists not only as a spiritual force, but a vehicle of conscience and righteousness. We cannot go into any situation from a neutral viewpoint, but Christians do think (at the very least) that we hold the capital-T truth viewpoint, and this allows us to understand everything in that light.

By that light, we can successfully reject those things we know go against our faith. But then, furthermore, we need to reject those perspective for the right reasons and in the right way. If it isn’t Biblically grounded, and it agrees with a common perspective of our surrounding culture, then we merely prop up secular perspectives in our supposedly Christian criticism. I’m sure you could say we’re mired in that from birth, but what else is conversion and repentance than a new way of thought, a “turning away” from the former things?

I understand why people think this way, though; they found Jesus Christ later in life, or perhaps after a difficult time. Naturally, they will attack something that prevented their own spiritual growth, something that potentially becomes a stumbling block for others. Still, I find myself in the unique position of being a Christian since conscious of it. I played Mortal Kombat and performed fatalities on people in at the age of six; I hold no illwill towards violence in video games precisely because it appears valueless to me. Abstracted from the aesthetics and graphics, Mortal Kombat’s a rather solid fighting franchise. That’s my Christian point of view, abstracted from experience. If I found myself brutally assaulted in real life, then my brain would process that event differently and affect my entire being.


My childhood!

Although we need to recognize people’s diverse (and sometimes explosive) responses to a situation, it’s a “meat before idols” sort of situation. We can’t deal with something objectively unless we remove our emotional attachment to the issue; that’s just how it works. The Apostle Paul was many things, but he knew this as well as anyone; his Epistles brim with sharp, yet effective, criticism of the Christian communities formed during his time. He required a “big picture” approach, and his own personal circumstances and trials meant nothing in comparison to the spread of the Gospel, as Phillippians 1 tells us:

12 Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel,13 so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, 14 and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 15 Some, to be sure, are preaching Christ even from envy and strife, but some also from good will; 16 the latter do it out of love, knowing that I am appointed for the defense of the gospel; 17 the former proclaim Christ out of selfish ambition rather than from pure motives, thinking to cause me distress in my imprisonment. 18 What then? Only that in every way, whether in pretense or in truth, Christ is proclaimed; and in this I rejoice.

In effect, his personal hangups didn’t shut down the conversation. In fact, his problems and the like enhanced the spread of the Gospel. His willingness to encounter such problems, and then see them for what they are (roadblocks to be overcome, rather than situations to tie us down), made him infinitely more effective than suddenly stopping at some particular issues due to its “offensiveness”. A critic cannot operate unless the shrill voice of the experiential shuts itself down for just a moment to consider the circumstances surrounding the case. Surely, everyone thinks differently, but understanding rather than jumping to offense remains the best possible response. So when Bryan Hall says this:

I have noticed a disturbing trend in some online Christian communities where anyone that thinks differently than the group norm is quickly shutout and shutdown. Open communication and a lack of fear of where a conversation might head are needed with good criticism, period.

In that I am in total agreement. Healthy criticism must engage with everything equally, and must take a whole range of experiences to understand that thing. That requires (surprise) a community of Christians, a Church, unwlling to be offended, but quite willing to love and accept – just not in the way you would imagine. Why people, but not video games? That is the interesting mystery, that a Bible so full of offense and sin (and read as Holy Scripture, no less) could cause us to shut our minds against things before we even look at them and from whence they came. Truly strange.

Guess you’ll need to figure out for yourself what you should do; those are just recommendations.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.